WASHINGTON — The Drug Enforcement Administration secretly collected data in bulk about Americans’ purchases of money-counting machines — and took steps to hide the effort from defendants and courts — before quietly shuttering the program in 2013 amid the uproar over the disclosures by the National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, an inspector general report found.
Seeking leads about who might be a drug trafficker, the D.E.A. started in 2008 to issue blanket administrative subpoenas to vendors to learn who was buying money counters. The subpoenas involved no court oversight and were not pegged to any particular investigation. The agency collected tens of thousands of records showing the names and addresses of people who bought the devices.
The public version of the report, which portrayed the program as legally questionable, blacked out the device whose purchase the D.E.A. had tracked. But in a slip-up, the report contained one uncensored reference in a section about how D.E.A. policy called for withholding from official case files the fact that agents first learned the names of suspects from its database of its money-counter purchases.
The report cited field offices’ complaints that the program had wasted time with a high volume of low-quality leads, resulting in agents scrutinizing people “without any connection to illicit activity.” But the D.E.A. eventually refined its analysis to produce fewer but higher-quality leads, and the D.E.A. said it had led to arrests and seizures of drugs, guns, cars and illicit cash.
The idea for the nationwide program originated in a D.E.A. operation in Chicago, when a subpoena for three months of purchase records from a local store led to two arrests and “significant seizures of drugs and related proceeds,” it said.
But Sarah St. Vincent, a Human Rights Watch researcher who flagged the slip-up on Twitter, argued that it was an abuse to suck Americans’ names into a database that would be analyzed to identify criminal suspects, based solely upon their purchase of a lawful product.
In the spring of 2013, the report said, the D.E.A. submitted its database to a joint operations hub where law enforcement agencies working together on organized crime and drug enforcement could mine it. But F.B.I. agents questioned whether the data had been lawfully acquired, and the bureau banned its officials from gaining access to it.
The F.B.I. agents “explained that running all of these names, which had been collected without foundation, through a massive government database and producing comprehensive intelligence products on any ‘hits,’ which included detailed information on family members and pictures, ‘didn’t sit right,’” the report said.